Tucson has many lovely spots that take your breath away at the holidays.
Among the most historic and elegant is the Arizona Inn.
Relaxing in the library at the foot of the 14-foot Christmas tree with a champagne cocktail or a steamy cup of holiday cheer — as a cozy mesquite fire crackles nearby — is bliss.
For more than 80 Christmases, locals and visitors have journeyed to the Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm St., to take in the festive décor.
Some fill their photo albums with annual portraits by the fire or under the tree. Others unwrap gifts in the library. And many a couple has vowed everlasting love under the traditional Douglas fir on Christmas Eve.
What is it that’s so special about the décor at the Arizona Inn?
“It’s like going back to your family,” said Patrick Cray, general manager. “It’s like going back to when you were a kid.”
Decorating at the inn is a family affair, Cray said. Just before Thanksgiving, the staff brings out the boxes of decorations. A massive Oregon tree is delivered, and it takes several employees to cut it and stand it in water. About halfway through the holiday season, the tree is replaced with a fresh one — more on that later.
Over two days, 2,500 tiny lights — white and colored — are strung on the tree, using two ladders — one that’s 16 feet tall. Ornaments, some that date to the 1940s, are hung. There are brightly colored tin ornaments from Mexico, paper ornaments, sparkly glass globes, wooden painted Santas, white doves and more.
Some employees bring in their children or grandchildren to add an ornament or two to the tree.
“Christmas is a family event and we are a family business — fourth-generation owned,” Cray said.
The executive chef and kitchen staff prepare or refurbish a gingerbread replica of the inn, complete with rosy pink walls and a tiny, glittering tree in the library window. Decorating the foyer is a tradition that has lasted through the years.
Wreaths and garlands are hung throughout, giant poinsettias bring bursts of crimson and fresh flowers add to the décor.
Paper-bag luminarias filled with sand and candles are lit on Elm Street, welcoming guests.
“I like the environment that it creates of a family Christmas,” said Patty Doar, the granddaughter of Isabella Greenway, who opened the Arizona Inn on Dec. 18, 1930. Doar became a partner in running the inn in 1990 and became sole proprietor in 1995. Her son, Will Conroy, became president of the Arizona Inn in 2005.
“There’s excitement in the whole hotel,” Doar added. “With the tree and a fire in the fireplace, it feels like an extension of a family Christmas at home. It’s a labor of love.”
No one is sure if there was a tree that first Christmas in 1930, when the Arizona Inn opened with a dinner-dance for 25 couples from the University of Arizona’s Sigma Phi Gamma sorority. But it’s likely there was, followed by a fresh tree in the library every year since.
What some might not know is that sometime during the first or second week of December, a new, fresh tree is brought in. It’s all hands on deck as the staff takes down one tree and decorates the new one.
“We run the fireplace in the library, and it gets warm in there, so we need a new tree to last us through the new year,” Cray said.
Every year, a handful of guests bring in a special ornament to add to the tree. Retired Arizona Inn comptroller Bill Wertz secretly adds a different tiny trolley ornament from San Francisco to the tree annually, for employees to find.
“Christmas here is real, it’s not done by a corporation or a design team,” Conroy said. “It’s authentic. It’s just us.”
Taking the lead this year with decorations is Dan Arvizu, design coordinator who has worked at the Arizona Inn for 22 years. His wife, Linda, helped decorate the tree this year.
“It special to see such a grand tree in that library,” Arvizu said. “It is truly magical.”